OpenACS Packages

Using the APM application to install, distribute and remove packages specifically used in database applications.

One of the core ideas of software engineering is to divide a large project into separate modules. Modularization makes it easier to customize a system for your own specific needs, allowing you to write new modules and remove unnecessary ones. Using modules also makes it easier to distribute the work among many different programmers. A quick review of the available Linux, Apache, Perl and Python modules freely available on the Internet makes this point very clear.

OpenACS 4 (Open Architecture Community System), the toolkit for creating on-line communities that was initially examined here last month, dramatically improves on earlier versions in a number of ways. But perhaps the most important change is the division of functionality into modules, which are called “packages” in the OpenACS world. Because each package is self-contained, and because it is possible to connect any package with any URL, OpenACS 4 has made it easier than ever to create flexible community web sites.

This month, we take an initial look at OpenACS packages, including how we can install and use them. (This article assumes that you already have installed PostgreSQL, AOLserver and the core OpenACS functionality, as described in the last two installments of At the Forge.) Since most OpenACS sites use some of the functionality that comes with the built-in applications, rather than write everything from scratch, installing packages is something every OpenACS administrator needs to know how to do soon after installing the core system.

Web/Database Packages

Consider the following simple CGI program written in Perl:

use strict;
use warnings;
use CGI;
my $query = new CGI;
print $query->header();
print $query->start_html(-title => "Testing");
print "<p>This is some text</p>\n";
print $query->end_html();

If I install this program as in my web server's CGI directory, others can see the results of its execution by retrieving If I want this program to be available under a number of different names, I can copy it; the name that I choose will be reflected in the URL.

Things get a bit trickier if my server-side application consists of several CGI programs rather than a single program. If I want to have several copies of such an application suite running on my system, I must copy all of the program files. In many cases, it'll be easier to place all of the files in a directory, then copy the directory and all of its contents each time I want the application to run somewhere else.

Making such copies carries potential synchronization problems: if I fix a problem in one copy of a program, I will have to make the same change to every copy of the program. I can resolve some of these problems with CVS, but I also could eliminate this issue by keeping only one copy of my program on the filesystem. Then I could configure the web server (either Apache or AOLserver) to treat one or more URLs as requests for my program.

Now consider what happens if this application suite takes advantage of a relational database. Installing the application is no longer as simple as copying files or configuring the HTTP server. Now, we also need to have some way of resolving potential conflicts and confusion between the copies of a single application, such that the forums at /foo/bboard don't get confused with /bar/bboard in the database. If and when we remove our application from the system, we also will need a way to remove the database tables it used.

In OpenACS, the solution to this problem is APM, the ArsDigita Package Manager. APM was originally written by ArsDigita, a now-defunct consulting company that wrote the predecessor to OpenACS. ACS worked only with an Oracle database server, whereas OpenACS works with both Oracle and PostgreSQL.

APM handles a number of different issues inherent in server-side applications that use a database, including version control, scripts for table creation and removal and database independence. APM also has been designed to allow each copy of an application to have independent configuration variables and to be associated with one or more separate URLs.

Filesystem Layout

An APM really is nothing more than a .tar.gz file with an .apm extension. The file is typically named like this: packagename-0.5d.apm—where packagename is the unique name associated with the package. This example package contains development version 0.5. Opening a package with tar -zxvf reveals a standard file and directory structure:

  •, an XML file describing the contents of the package. This file, normally created automatically by the OpenACS APM application, tells OpenACS which files are associated with the package and which configuration parameters are available for the user. It also indicates whether the application is a singleton (i.e., provides services for the rest of the system) or an application (i.e., can be run from a particular URL).

  • The sql directory is where the table-creation (and table-destruction) scripts are located. Originally, when ACS supported only Oracle, this directory normally would contain two files: packagename-create.sql and packagename-drop.sql. The APM installer would run the create script when the package was installed and the drop script when it was removed. (The create script often runs INSERTs as well, seeding database tables with standard data for later use.)

Now that OpenACS supports PostgreSQL as well as Oracle, this directory structure has changed somewhat. Within the sql directory are oracle and postgresql directories that have parallel scripts for creating and dropping the tables. Each installed copy of OpenACS knows which databases it supports (based on the value of a variable in AOLserver's nsd.tcl configuration file), and thus chooses the most appropriate script.

  • The tcl directory contains Tcl files containing procedure definitions. These procedures are loaded into AOLserver at startup time, giving them a speed advantage over those defined inside of .tcl (or .adp) pages elsewhere in the OpenACS system.

  • The www directory contains what we normally expect to be associated with a web application. This is where we put our .tcl and .adp pages, as well as any graphics and auxiliary files associated with the application. OpenACS's query dispatcher, which makes it possible for server-side programs to support multiple database servers, works with XML files with an .xql extension; these also go in the www directory.

  • Because of how the OpenACS templating system works, it's not unusual for a single web page to use three files: a .tcl file for setting variables, an .xql file that defines the SQL query used to retrieve rows from the database and an .adp file that is responsible for turning the information into HTML.

APMs also may contain a number of other files, such as database upgrade and migration scripts (for those users who are upgrading from a previous version of the package), regression tests (to ensure that the package works correctly), administration facilities (under www/admin) and HTML-formatted package documentation (under www/doc).



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Re: At the Forge: OpenACS Packages

Anonymous's picture

I am interested in the statement you make I have found parameters to be a particularly useful part of OpenACS, in that they let me create an application once and use it many times, but give each instance its own configuration.
Can you give some detail and examples of the configurable parameters for applications? I am especially interested in how configurable the UI to OACS application pages is. For instance, if I have several instances of bulletin boards configured, can I have them all look different? How would I go about modifying the basic look of an OACS application per instance?
Thanks for your insight:)

Re: At the Forge: OpenACS Packages

ReuvenMLerner's picture

If you're familiar with object-oriented programming, then you can think of package parameters as instance variables: Each instance has the same variables, but different values in each variable.

And just as different objects have different instance variables, different packages have different parameters. The calendar package might have a parameter asking for what language you want to use to display text, and whether weeks start on Sunday or Monday, and what the name of the CSS file is for that package. The bulletin board package might have a parameter to indicate whether it displays messages in threads or chronologically,

Permissions are explicitly not handled by parameters. Permissions are a separate animal, and are set with a different administration page.

In theory, a package can allow its look and feel to be modified using parameters. In reality, most packages only let you change some basic features, and expect the basic look and feel to stay the same. If you want to really change things, then you use CSS at the global level, or the "default master" for the particular site or subsite you're using.

I expect that over time, as people want to customize the user interface more and more, the number of parameters will grow. At the same time, OpenACS is designed to be taken apart and modified, for a variety of reasons.

Does this make sense?


Re: At the Forge: OpenACS Packages

Anonymous's picture

Hi. Yes, thanks.

I also noticed a "skin" package that seems to help customize look and feel of subsites.

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